'Auntie''s Favourites (and Unmentionables)
YEARS ago I knew two brothers from Willesden Green. Both had been in the Labour Party youth section, but whereas one, Cyril, became a Marxist, lecturing for a time at the London School of Economics (LSE), his brother Tony, down from Oxford to the BBC, was a committed Fabian.
One Budget Day a BBC crew were out on the street interviewing people near LSE when Cyril came along. Before the interviewer could step up to him with a mike, an anxious figure came zooming out from somewhere exclaiming "Not him! Not him!" It was Tony from the Beeb, ensuring brother Cyril's incendiary views were not broadcast to the nation.
That story is quite old, and may only concern two individuals, but a few years ago after the government announced it was scrapping plans for a third runway at Heathrow I watched a TV interview with MPs who had opposed airport expansion. They spoke to a Tory or two, and a Lib Dem, I think from Kingston. In the background, you could see left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell chatting to someone, maybe a constituent. Some pleasant parts of John's constituency would disappear under the concrete if the runway had gone ahead. But the interviewer never reached him. Perhaps there just wasn't time, or maybe the interviewers thought John McDonnell was still banned from airtime, as he seemed to be while he was challenging for the Labour Party leadership.
The criteria for whom the BBC invites and whom it excludes may not always be obvious, but nor are they random, or decisions left to individuals. The individual broadcasters must learn whom or what is acceptable, and what best avoided.
Perhaps the best known case of the Corporation taking a political decision - whether or not it did so on its own - was at the beginning of 2009 when it refused to allow a charity appeal for people in Gaza. It seemed the Season of Peace and Goodwill to All had been cancelled.
There have been less well known examples. On May 25, 1995, Yugoslav Youth Day, a Serb mortar attack on a cafe area in Tuzla killed 71, mostly young people, and injured hundreds more. The mayor of Tuzla radioed the UN saying "Tonight we are picking up the pieces of our children".
It so happened that a man from Tuzla, parent of two, was visiting London at the time, and offered to go into the BBC studio to be interviewed. His name is Faruk Ibrahimovic and he speaks perfect English. The Beeb told him he would not be needed. On Radio Four next morning they had their regular guests from the Serb Information Centre, messrs. Gasic and Gavrilovic, to deny that Karadzic's forces could be responsible for the slaughter of the innocents.
Earlier at the outbreak of the Bosnian war I heard a TV news announcer say that "the Muslim authorities" in a particular town were investigating a murder. For a moment, as I entered the room I wondered naively why the religious authorities were entrusted with such matters, but what I saw on TV was an ordinary Bosnian police car. Perhaps the driver was a Muslim, perhaps not. You would not expect a report on crime in London to say it was being investigated by the Anglican church authorities ( nor even , as a friend adds, the Masons!) But throughout the Bosnia war the Beeb would only refer to Bosniacs as "the Muslims". I don't think they ever got around to interviewing visiting Bosnian General Jovan Divjak (who happened to be Serb), nor diplomat Sven Alkali (a Sefardi Jew), as this would only have confused the poor listeneners and viewers. (Though General Divjak appeared in the BBC documentary The Death of Yugoslavia).
I think the BBC's coverage of the Bosnian conflict had been slanted to serve the dominant faction at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for which official recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state was reluctant, and blamed on German pressure: whereas Britain's arms embargo (cf it's 'non-intervention' policy re Spain), and belief in partition (these foreigners only want to kill one another) went with an inclination to support traditional allies, the nationalist Serbs. However it was only some time later that Dame (now Baroness) Pauline Neville-Jones, who had been Lord Hurd's chief of the Joint Intelligence Committee, became a BBC governor.
On November 2, 2005, the BBC TV London news had a report on the Skies Are Weeping concert, dedicated to American campaigner Rachel Corrie, killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza. The concert, for which Rachel's mother had flown over, had taken place at the Hackney Empire the night before. It was the world premiere of a cantata dedicated to Rachel Corrie by American composer Philip Munger.
Having given the event no previous publicity, the Beeb's coverage focused on its "controversial" nature, featuring a small Zionist demonstration outside, and giving the last word to the demonstration's organiser Jonathan Hoffman. I wondered why the reporters had not interviewed the concert's organiser and soprano Deborah Fink, who could have told them that there were far more Jewish people like herself enjoying and participating in the concert, and more Jewish people among the celebrity sponsors, than Mr.Hoffman's sorry bunch, which included Kahanists and Christian Zionists, outside. It turned they had interviewed Deborah, who explained to them what it was about and why Jewish people were involved along with Palestinians and others. But someone must have decided that this was all too much to take in, and so Deborah Fink was simply edited out, and became an unperson, while not for the last time, Jonathan Hoffman of the Zionist Federation became a star. On February 16, 2006 the BBC sent Deborah an apology, admitting they had given a misleading impression. It was not the last time they had to apologise for news items in which Mr.Hoffman has appeared.
Still I suppose the BBC's belated and inadequate coverage of the Skies Are Weeping concert compares favourably with its two year blackout on the Liverpool docks strike and lockout, only lifted by Robbie Fowler revealing a dockers' support tee shirt to the cameras on Match of the Day.
University lecturer and East End councillor Rania Hafez recently found herself invited to discuss women's rights and Islam on BBC One with none other than Tommy Robinson, alias Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, of the English Defence League. Amenable though she might be to civilised discussion, Ms. Hafez decided that the ex-BNP founder of the EDL was not someone suitable with whom she wished to have a friendly chat, nor would she lend herself to BBC programme makers' pretence that he was.
To Yaxley Lennon and Nick Griffin, we must add another offensive personality for whom the BBC seems to have a soft spot lately, and that is the Israeli musician Gilead Atzmon. Now if the BBC wants to broadcast him on sax with his Orient House ensemble or whatever I've no objection. He is entitled to pursue his profession, and his music has given a lot of people pleasure. He only becomes objectionable when he takes the saxophone out of his mouth.
But the BBC's Persian service, for instance, seems to have decided lately that its Iranian audience could not get enough of Atzmon on the Iranian government-sponsored Press TV, and they must have more of him assuring listeners he is not an antisemite before explaining his antipathy towards "Jewish identity" and other sins on the BBC.
If the BBC wanted to find an Israeli dissident to interview, there is no shortage to hand these days. There's Professor Ilan Pappe, author of 'The Ethic Cleansing of Palestine' , who is at Exeter, and Iraqi-born Avi Shlaim at Oxford. Miri Weingarten, of Physicians for Human Rights is here in London, as is journalist Rachel Shabi. Moshe Machover, a founder of the left-wing group Matzpen is a professor emeritus of Queen Mary's College, and in touch with left-wing Iranians through his activity in Hands Off the People of Iran (HOPI), which supports workers resisting the Islamic regime and opposes war and sanctions. Such people and their views might be of interest to the Iranian audience, even if they are not good sax players.
But unlike Atzmon, they have not taken sides with Holocaust deniers, hinted that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion might contain some truth, or spent their time denouncing the motives of Jews who are on the Left and involved in pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist campaigns. All of which makes me wonder what are the motives of the BBC in providing a platform for Atzmon?
Still, I see his latest interview is on You Tube, and being touted around as "superb" by David Icke's supporters. So maybe Icke too will soon be on the Beeb, expounding his view that the Royal Family are descended from reptiles. At least that should be more entertaining than Atzmon.